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TED2018

Paul Rucker: The symbols of systemic racism -- and how to take away their power

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Multidisciplinary artist and TED Fellow Paul Rucker is unstitching the legacy of systemic racism in the United States. A collector of artifacts connected to the history of slavery -- from branding irons and shackles to postcards depicting lynchings -- Rucker couldn't find an undamaged Ku Klux Klan robe for his collection, so he began making his own. The result: striking garments in non-traditional fabrics like kente cloth, camouflage and silk that confront the normalization of systemic racism in the US. "If we as a people collectively look at these objects and realize that they are part of our history, we can find a way to where they have no more power over us," Rucker says. (This talk contains graphic images.)

- Visual artist, cellist
Paul Rucker creates art that explores issues related to mass incarceration, racially-motivated violence, police brutality and the continuing impact of slavery in the US. Full bio

[This talk contains graphic images
Viewer discretion is advised]
00:12
I collect objects.
00:17
I collect branding irons that were used
to mark slaves as property.
00:19
I collect shackles for adults
00:25
and restraints for adults
00:29
as well as children.
00:31
I collect lynching postcards.
00:37
Yes, they depict lynchings.
00:40
They also depict the massive crowds
that attended these lynchings,
00:42
and they are postcards
00:46
that were also used for correspondence.
00:48
I collect proslavery books
that portray black people as criminals
00:52
or as animals without souls.
00:58
I brought you something today.
01:02
This is a ship's branding iron.
01:07
It was used to mark slaves.
01:10
Well, they actually were not slaves
when they were marked.
01:15
They were in Africa.
01:17
But they were marked with an "S"
01:19
to designate that they
were going to be slaves
01:21
when they were brought to the US
01:23
and when they were brought to Europe.
01:25
Another object or image that captured
my imagination when I was younger
01:32
was a Klan robe.
01:35
Growing up in South Carolina, I would see
Ku Klux Klan rallies occasionally,
01:37
actually more than occasionally,
01:41
and the memories of those events
never really left my mind.
01:43
And I didn't really do anything
with that imagery until 25 years later.
01:46
A few years ago,
I started researching the Klan,
01:51
the three distinct waves of the Klan,
01:53
the second one in particular.
01:56
The second wave of the Klan
had more than five million active members,
01:58
which was five percent
of the population at the time,
02:03
which was also the population
of New York City at the time.
02:06
The Klan robe factory in the Buckhead
neighborhood of Georgia was so busy
02:10
it became a 24-hour factory
to keep up with orders.
02:14
They kept 20,000 robes on hand at all time
to keep up with the demand.
02:18
As a collector of artifacts
and as an artist,
02:24
I really wanted a Klan robe
to be part of my collection,
02:26
because artifacts
and objects tell stories,
02:29
but I really couldn't find one
that was really good quality.
02:33
What is a black man to do in America
02:36
when he can't find the quality
Klan robe that he's looking for?
02:38
(Laughter)
02:41
So I had no other choice.
02:45
I decided I was going to make
the best quality Klan robes in America.
02:47
These are not your traditional Klan robes
you would see at any KKK rally.
02:53
I used kente cloth,
02:57
I used camouflage,
02:59
spandex, burlap, silks,
satins and different patterns.
03:01
I make them for different age groups;
I make them for young kids
03:07
as well as toddlers.
03:10
I even made one for an infant.
03:12
After making so many robes,
03:19
I realized that the policies
the Klan had in place
03:21
or wanted to have in place
a hundred years ago
03:25
are in place today.
03:28
We have segregated schools,
neighborhoods, workplaces,
03:30
and it's not the people wearing hoods
that are keeping these policies in place.
03:35
My work is about
the long-term impact of slavery.
03:41
We're not just dealing
with the residue of systemic racism.
03:44
It's the basis
of every single thing we do.
03:47
Again we have intentionally
segregated neighborhoods,
03:50
workplaces and schools.
03:53
We have voter suppression.
03:56
We have disproportionate representation
of minorities incarcerated.
03:57
We have environmental racism.
We have police brutality.
04:03
I brought you a few things today.
04:08
The stealth aspect of racism
04:13
is part of its power.
04:16
When you're discriminated against,
04:19
you can't always prove
you're being discriminated against.
04:21
Racism has the power to hide,
04:25
and when it hides, it's kept safe
04:28
because it blends in.
04:31
I created this robe to illustrate that.
04:34
The basis of capitalism
in America is slavery.
04:38
Slaves were the capital in capitalism.
04:46
The first Grand Wizard in 1868,
Nathan Bedford Forrest,
04:50
was a Confederate soldier
and a millionaire slave trader.
04:54
The wealth that was created
from chattel slavery --
05:07
that's slaves as property --
would boggle the mind.
05:10
Cotton sales alone in 1860
equalled 200 million dollars.
05:14
That would equal
five billion dollars today.
05:18
A lot of that wealth can be seen today
through generational wealth.
05:23
Oh, I forgot the other crops as well.
05:28
You have indigo, rice and tobacco.
05:30
In 2015, I made one robe a week
for the entire year.
05:38
After making 75 robes, I had an epiphany.
05:43
I have a realization
that white supremacy is there,
05:45
but the biggest force
of white supremacy is not the KKK,
05:51
it's the normalization of systemic racism.
05:55
There was something else I realized.
05:59
The robes had no more power
over me at all.
06:01
But if we as a people collectively
06:05
look at these objects --
06:09
branding irons, shackles, robes --
06:11
and realize that they
are part of our history,
06:13
we can find a way to where they have
no more power over us.
06:16
If we look at systemic racism
and acknowledge
06:21
that it's sown into the very fabric
of who we are as a country,
06:26
then we can actually do something
about the intentional segregation
06:31
in our schools,
neighborhoods and workplaces.
06:35
But then and only then
can we actually address
06:40
and confront this legacy of slavery
06:43
and dismantle this ugly legacy of slavery.
06:45
Thank you very much.
06:49
(Applause)
06:50

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About the speaker:

Paul Rucker - Visual artist, cellist
Paul Rucker creates art that explores issues related to mass incarceration, racially-motivated violence, police brutality and the continuing impact of slavery in the US.

Why you should listen

Paul Rucker is a visual artist, composer, and musician who often combines media, integrating live performance, sound, original compositions and visual art. His work is the product of a rich interactive process, through which he investigates community impacts, human rights issues, historical research and basic human emotions surrounding particular subject matter. Much of his current work focuses on the Prison Industrial Complex and the many issues accompanying incarceration in its relationship to slavery. He has presented performances and visual art exhibitions across the country and has collaborated with educational institutions to address the issue of mass incarceration. Presentations have taken place in schools, active prisons and also inactive prisons such as Alcatraz.

His largest installation to date, REWIND, garnered praise from Baltimore Magazine awarding Rucker "Best Artist 2015." Additionally, REWIND received "Best Solo Show 2015" and "#1 Art Show of 2015" from Baltimore City Paper, reviews by The Huffington Post, Artnet News, Washington Post, The Root and The Real News Network. Rucker has received numerous grants, awards and residencies for visual art and music. He is a 2012 Creative Capital Grantee in visual art as well as a 2014 and 2018 MAP (Multi-Arts Production) Fund Grantee for performance. In 2015 he received a prestigious Joan Mitchell Painters & Sculptors Grant as well as the Mary Sawyer Baker Award. In 2016 Paul received the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship and the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, for which he is the first artist in residence at the new National Museum of African American Culture.

Residencies include MacDowell Colony, Blue Mountain Center, Ucross Foundation, Art OMI, Banff Centre, Pilchuck Glass School, Rauschenberg Residency, Joan Mitchell Residency, Hemera Artist Retreat, Air Serembe, Creative Alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy.  In 2013-2015, he was the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Artist in Residence and Research Fellow at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He was most recently awarded a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2018 TED Fellowship and the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Foundation and Artist Trust. Rucker is an iCubed Visiting Arts Fellow embedded at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Rucker's latest work, Storm in the Time of Shelter, an installation of 52 custom Ku Klux Klan robes and related artifacts, is featured in the exhibition "Declaration," on view at the new Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia through September 9, 2018.

More profile about the speaker
Paul Rucker | Speaker | TED.com